By Karyn Mac
“The Real Ceilidh” Presenter. Irvine Beat FM
Karyn Mac here, from The Real Ceilidh on Sunday afternoons, from 4 – 6pm.
“Carmichael’s Ceilidh Ball” by John Carmichael and his Ceilidh Band is the featured album this week on the Real Ceilidh. It was released in 1999.
The Band Line Up
- Accordion – John Carmichael
- Fiddle – Marie Fielding
- Piano – John Crawford
- Bass – John Sinton
- Drums – Billy Thom
Notes from the CD Cover:
“What is a Ceilidh Ball? It’s a lively selection of the most popular dances around, making for a great nights entertainment. Once again John Carmichael and his band take the stand and present ‘Carmichael’s Ceilidh Ball’ featuring the very best of Scotland’s Music… as only they can. If you want to be part of this occasion, why not join the Ceilidh Ball”.
John Carmichael is one of the most popular and highly respected musicians in the Scottish Music scene today. Not only is he a tremendous ‘box’ player, he is one of the ‘characters’ in the business – and can entertain audiences for hours with his stories and jokes (most of which we couldn’t possibly print!).
John grew up listening to the Scottish Dance Bands on the radio – mainly Jimmy Shand. It wasn’t until he was about fifteen that he realized there were other bands – like Bobby MacLeod – and started listening to them too. John began piano lessons when he was about nine years old – taught by a relation of his Mum’s. However these were simple, straightforward piano lessons – no “Scottishy” stuff. A few years later when he was about sixteen years old, Ian McLean – his pal from school, who was “mad about the box” – got an accordion for his Christmas, but he couldn’t play it. John – who had never thought about the accordion before – had a go and managed to get his fingers moving around the keyboard and could play the “odd wee bit” of a tune. Ian went for lessons, so both pals learned together, using the one accordion. Eventually John got an accordion of his own – an old, second hand “clapped out thing” which he bought in Chisholm & Hunters at Glasgow Cross. (He jokes “Put down £2 and change your address…!”). John frequently went on holiday to Skye with Ian – who was originally from there – and they attended the various dances in places such as Portree. At this point they became “fanatical” about the music.
The first public performance for John and Ian was at the Cardonald Highlanders, in Mosspark, Glasgow in the late 1950’s. They could only play one tune – the Atholl Highlanders – so they played it twice, once each! John recalls being “absolutely terrified” before he went on stage!
John went to Archie Duncan for some lessons, when he was around 19 years old. He learned so much from Archie – both with what he had taught him and just by watching him playing. However, those lessons lasted only about a year, as he was too busy with his engineering job to spend time practising.
Around 1962, when Ivor Britton won the Scottish championships at Perth, John caught the competition bug. In 1963 he had a go at the competition, but didn’t get anywhere. However, he decided to try again the following year. The night before the competition, his wife (Freena) had been taken into hospital, as she was due to have their first baby. John went to the hospital in the morning but was told that “nothing would happen today”, so Freena told him to go up to Perth – after all, he had been practicing for a whole year! So he went along and played in the afternoon, and got through to the final at night. Now he had a dilemma! He had planned to go home after the afternoon competitions, but now that he was into the final, that meant he had to stay for the evening concert. So he phoned the hospital – and discovered that he was now the proud father of a baby girl! After a celebratory drink or two (or three!) he wanted to go back down to Glasgow and see his new daughter – but his pals wouldn’t let him. They told him to “get into that final”. So he stayed – and WON the All Scotland Championship at Perth – the same day his wife gave birth to their first daughter, Fiona.
A lot of band work followed John’s success at Perth in 1964 and he played mainly in Andrew Rankine’s Band for a while. Then he moved with his family to Australia for about four years. This was with his job though – he didn’t play much while over there. He remembers people flocking to various venues whenever a Scottish tour would come over – bands like Jimmy Shand or Ian Powrie.
By the time their second child was due, it was decided that Freena would come home to Scotland to have the baby and visit some relatives, then she would go back after the baby was born. After she had arrived home, John had one of this “moments of madness” and he flew back home too, as he had about four months of leave to take. A few weeks after arriving back in Scotland, he was in Edinburgh and happened to meet Jim Johnstone. Jim was desperately looking for a second box player for his band as they were going on a tour with the White Heather Club. They discussed this and found that John had enough time to do the tour before he was due to go back to work in Australia – however John thought he’s better check with his wife first! She said it would be fine and John decided to do the tour – he spent the next fourteen weeks in Brighton with the White Heather Club. John was ‘hooked’ on music again and he thought “There’s no way I’m goin’ back doon the engine room!” He resigned from his engineering job and worked regularly with the Jim Johnstone Band. After a while the work began to “fizzle out” – and so did his income. He had a wife and two kids to support – and a mortgage to pay. At this point, he “went back to school” – to teach (he had been a teacher before going to sea as an engineer). He still did the odd gig while he was teaching, but this work restricted the number of gigs he could do.
However a TV job came up with Calum Kennedy. Although he was a bit nervous about it, John decided to do the ‘Round at Calum’s’ series for Grampian TV. In between all this he still found time to do some gigs with people like Andrew Rankine and Jim Johnstone, as well as doing a lot on his own with Calum Kennedy and Alasdair Gillies.
In the early 1970’s while he was working as a Principal Guidance teacher in a Glasgow school, he was offered another TV series with Alasdair Gilles – in Canada. He now had four kids, a wife and a mortgage – another dilemma! He was only about thirty years old then and was really keen to pursue music – but he had a steady job and there was the potential to become an assistant head teacher within five or six years. He had already been turning down TV work due to his teaching commitments, although his band was still working. A decision was made and he “chucked the teaching”.
He went to Canada to do the TV series and fortunately didn’t need to up sticks and move the whole family. He went across for three weeks at a time, did fifteen to twenty programmes and then came back home for a few months. This was a very good job – and it also allowed him plenty of time in Scotland where he was involved with many of the Scottish theatre shows that were becoming very popular.
Then a few months later it would be back to Canada to film another series of the “telly’s”. The Cape Breton Fiddlers were resident on the show – who were little known here at that time. Although the programme was only to run for two years, John was able to get many of the most popular Scottish entertainers booked into the show – people like Moira Anderson, Calum Kennedy, the Alexander Brothers, Alistair MacDonald. In fact, at this point Stan Hamilton had been living in Canada for around twenty years (although he was originally from Ayr) – and he had never been on TV. John spoke to ‘the bosses’ and managed to get him onto the show! John was a full time musician from 1972 until 1988.
Playing Ceilidhs & Weddings
The band were able to play much more than just normal ‘teuchter’ stuff.
As John’s band plays at many different functions, from ceilidhs to weddings, the band has had to be able to play much more than just normal ‘teuchter’ stuff. They have incorporated other styles into their repertoire, which have included quicksteps, the Hucklebuck and the Slosh.
As we heard earlier, John’s first overseas trip with music was in the early 70’s for the TV series in Canada. Towards the end of the series – around 1972/73 – he received a phone call “out of the blue” from Jimmy Shand. “Are you busy around Easter time son? Have you got a lot on? How dae ye fancy comin’ oot tae Australia wi’ me?” he asked. John checked his diary (thinking it would only be for a week or so) and said it would be okay. The tour of Australia and New Zealand lasted seven weeks! They did have a rehearsal though – John went to meet Jimmy and they played a few tunes – that was the practice!
John has been “very fortunate” to have been able to travel to so many different places and meet and work with so many people – all thanks to music. In his own words, he has had “a very exciting life”. Despite having recently celebrated his 80th birthday, he is still playing and compering, so we can carry on listening to John Carmichael’s music – and stories!
Random facts about John Carmichael (or Ikey, as he is affectionately known!)
- John was one of the Guests of Honour at the Association’s AGM in June 2004.
- One of the most prestigious arena’s he has played in was the Sydney Opera House, whilst on tour with Jimmy Shand in the 1970’s.
- He has travelled all over the world to play music – from Iceland to Germany, Holland to Jordan, and various visits to the USA including California and Boston.
- Not to mention playing for two ‘Monsoon Ceilidhs’ in Bombay.
- He also spent eight years going to Kuwait (twice a year) and nine years going to Abu Dhabi (three times a year).
- As well as jetting all over the world, he has somehow found time to record over sixty albums which include around ten with his own band, fifteen with the Box and Banjo Band, some with the Riverside Ceilidh Band – and many more!
- John was the Producer of Northern Lights TV show, as well as being the lead accordionist in the ‘house band’.
The Real Cielidh with Kayrn Mac airs live every Sunday. 4pm – 6pm (UK Time) on 107.2FM & online around the world here on Irvine Beat FM online. You can also listen on your smart speaker or any radio app.